Saturday, January 26, 2013

Elements of Positional Evaluation: How the Chess Pieces Get Their Power by Heisman

I’ve been a fan of National Master Dan Heisman ever since I discovered his columns online years ago. There are very few players who make things look so simple it makes you wonder why everybody isn’t a master; Heisman is one; CJS Purdy was another.
      In these days of seeing recommendations that you need to study tactics until you puke books on strategy are scarce. This book was originally written the mid-seventies on a typewriter. Heisman said of the original that it described the values and relationship between the pieces functioned in evaluating positions but it was not a beginners’ book. This latest edition has come a long way and Heisman recommends it for players rated between 800 and 1800. Personally, I think anybody rated below master would benefit from the book because it’s never a bad idea to review what you think you know, not to mention what you have forgotten.
      The contents are:
Background of Positional Knowledge
Elements Psuedo-Elements
Pieces in Relation to the Elements
Static Features Elements
Miscellaneous Applications of the Theory
Appendix: Illustrative Games

      Heisman starts off with an interesting history of positional theory then moves on to piece development and hypermodern theory. His discussion of the conflict between schools of thought, such as between Nimzovich's hypermodern theory and Tarrasch's dogmatic classical style is most interesting and instructive. Even when you are discussing strategy though, tactical motifs must be considered and Heisman covers basic motifs such as pins, combinations, sacrifices, and other tactical issues. His explanation of double pawns, development, static and dynamic positions, etc. can’t help but make things crystal clear.
      This whole area of strategy is often unappreciated by a lot of players, but answering the question “who stands better, and by how much?" is essential if one is going to understand the position because, barring a freak accident, tactical solutions either won’t be possible or else they will be unsound in most of the positions we encounter.  And this is precisely where I have seen a lot of lower rated players get into trouble.  Thinking the only way to win is to do so tactically, they will often play an unsound sacrifice then watch there so called attack fizzle out and be left a piece down.  Can't tell you how many free Bishop's I've been handed due to the old Bxf7+ trick even if it wasn't justified.
      When no sound combination is possible, you have to have some idea of who is better and why or you will just be shifting plastic to no purpose. These days, as compared to way back when, positional evaluations have changed, especially in regards to positional sacrifices. I can remember when positional sacrifices were made for no immediate material gain or no direct attack it left us all flabbergasted! But then the Benko Gambit (Volga Gambit to some), where Black sacrificed a Pawn for positional compensation created a sensation. GM Jim Tarajn's games used to fascinate me because he seemed to make exchange sacrifices a lot. Nowadays you see GMs routinely playing like that. Of course, they also play a lot of moves that look anti-positional and if Tarrasch thought some of Nimzovich’s ideas were bizarre, he would be appalled today. One thing Heisman covers very well is explaining the value of pieces varies depending on mobility, coordination, etc. IM Larry Kaufman’s discussion of this issue can be read HERE.

Bottom line: If you are looking for a better understanding of how to evaluate positions get this book!  Make sure you get the FOURTH Edition.

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